Saturday, May 18, 2024

#2,956. Citizen X (1995) - 1990s Made for Television


Based on a real serial killer who terrorized the U.S.S.R. throughout the 1980s, murdering some 50 young women and children, Citizen X is a gripping, well-acted movie that, along with exploring some of the usual tropes you’d expect to find in politically-themed thrillers, still has enough that is fresh to make it worthwhile.

Forensic specialist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), recently assigned to the post by his superior, Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland), finds himself dealing with an obvious serial killer when the decomposed bodies of seven children are found in a forest near Rostov. Promoted by Fetisov to be lead detective on the case, Burakov spends the better part of the next decade trying to track down a killer who refuses to stop, stabbing and mutilating child after child before (in some instances) sexually assaulting their remains.

Frustrated at every turn, both by the lack of evidence and the increasing pressure put on him by Bondarchuk (Joss Ackland), the head of the local Soviet crime committee and a staunch Communist, Burakov’s mental state slowly disintegrates. Yet he continues searching for a monster who, until he is behind bars, will never stop his reign of terror.

Like a good many movies in which a determined investigator faces off against bureaucrats, Citizen X features obligatory scenes where Bondarchuk, well-played by Ackland, continually criticizes Burakov’s methods, including his desire to speak with the American F.B.I. and compare notes, a request that Bondarchuk and the rest of the committee immediately deny. More than this, Bondarchuk often interferes in a way that is far from helpful, at one point insisting that Burakov release a potential suspect because he is a “Communist in good standing”.

As I said, these showdowns are nothing new for this sort of movie, but it is only a small fraction of Citizen X, and, though well-handled, pale in comparison to what makes it a truly unique motion picture.

First off is the relationship that develops between Rea’s Burakov and Sutherland’s Fetisov. During their first encounter, when Bukarov announces to the committee he believes there is a serial killer on the loose, Fetisov is dismissive and even insulting towards his newest subordinate. In their initial exchanges, we are firmly on Burakov’s side, and like him, believe Fetisov is covering his own ass, a high-ranking official who wants to keep his nose clean, rarely going to bat for Burakov. But then, like Burakov, we realize over time that we may be wrong about Fetisov. Watching their relationship move from one of animosity to something more substantial was a twist I wasn’t expecting, and both Rea (who won Best Actor at the Stiges Film Festival for his performance here) and Sutherland (who took home both a Primetime Emmy and a Golden Globe for his turn as Fetisov), are outstanding throughout.

But where Citizen X really impressed me were the scenes in which we watch the killer at work. Unlike the film’s central characters, we know in the first 10 minutes who it is that’s committing these horrible crimes: Andrei Chikatilo, played brilliantly by Jeffrey DeMunn. A husband and father of two, we spend a little time with Chikatilo outside of the murders, witnessing moments between him and his abusive wife (including one very uncomfortable sexual encounter shared by the two) and his run-ins with his superior at work, who also goes out of his way to embarrass Chikatilo. Yet even in these scenes, writer / director Chris Gerolmo is careful not to develop too much sympathy for his killer, and these moments are balanced with us tagging along with Chikatilo as he stalks his prey, lures them into the woods, and brutally stabs them numerous times (often, his victims are well under 12 years old). The killings seem more violent than they truly are (save one or two, which get pretty graphic), yet every single one is upsetting to watch. We understand Chikatilo, but we do not like him, and never once do we root for him to elude the justice that is closing in.

Released in 1996, Citizen X marks yet another venture into Communist Russia produced by HBO, after 1985’s Gulag and the magnificent 1990 biopic Stalin. With Citizen X, they round out what I’d recommend as a damn fine afternoon triple feature.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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